5 years after the Paris Agreement: Mission (im)possible?

Learn about the latest developments in EU policy in Energy Cities' What's EUp? - December 2020


Reminding ourselves of the promise of Paris

“Time to step up”; “Cities are more mobilized than ever on climate action”; “The time for action is now” – as expected for the anniversary of a landmark agreement, declarations and calls for action are mushrooming across the globe from urban initiatives, NGOs, progressive businesses and other actors. Whether these initiatives will have a profound impact is another story, but they are useful reminders on the Paris Agreement and its promise: “to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to limit temperature increase even further to 1,5 degrees Celsius”. Are we on track to fulfil this promise in our current trajectory?

The numbers don’t give cause for optimism

Looking purely at the nitty-gritty, we are still far away from meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. The above graph from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii illustrates clearly that 5 years after Paris, we are nowhere near in significantly reversing the upwards trend in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Since 2000, the CO2 concentration has increased by 11%. The impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic are only expected to cause a dip in our emissions in 2020, but not contribute to a change in trajectory. Additionally, recent findings from the European Environment Agency, the IPCC or the UN Environment Programme still show that we are on track for a minimum 3 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature in this century.

Glimmers of hope on the horizon

While these current numbers don’t bode well for the fate of the Paris Agreement, not all seems to be lost. In fact, several developments have the potential to significantly reduce the gap towards meeting the Paris targets. Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden’s win and his pledge to have the US join the net-zero emissions club could make a significant impact, although caution is warranted after his appointment of fossil fuel-friendly aides as climate policymakers. In Asia, recent net-zero emission pledges from China, Japan and South Korea could, combined with the new US ambitions, push global climate action within a 2 degrees temperature rise. And in Europe, the EU institutions are on the verge of adopting a higher 2030 GHG emission reduction target of -55%. Considering all these developments, the renowned Climate Action Tracker platform has even declared a “turning point” for the Paris Agreement.      

The pitfalls to avoid in going forward

A trajectory towards 2 degrees instead of 3 degrees Celsius warming already sounds more encouraging, but it is still insufficient to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Even if 1,5 degrees Celsius is perceived to be only an aspirational goal, seemingly far out of reach, we can’t afford not to go for it with our best shot. Moreover, we need to move beyond the horse-trading between what is scientifically recommended and what is considered to be politically feasible in terms of emission cuts, shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, and reducing our energy and resources needs in a way that is in line with planetary boundaries. And most importantly, emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not enough to go back to the way things were, to go “back to normal”. If we ought to learn anything from this immense health and socio-economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, it is that our fossil-based, extractive and wasteful societal model was anything but normal, and also not enabling us to design a Paris-proof future for this generation and future ones.

Enabling local authorities to do their part

What is the role of local authorities in all this, to ensure that the Paris Agreement goes from an impossible to a possible mission? Some city networks believe it is mainly about having cities report every year in excruciating detail, putting the same frontrunners in the spotlight and going way above national and supranational ambitions in setting targets. But this falls short in focusing on what is really essential for the local energy transition to play its part in the Paris Agreement. It is firstly about a differentiated approach that considers the potentials and needs of local governments of any size, level of advancement and starting conditions. The real impact lies not solely in enabling the Leuvens, Amsterdams and Stockholms to go even further. It is about empowering the thousands of small- and medium-sized cities across Europe, which are usually not in the spotlight and are often at the beginning of their transition, to plan and deliver hundreds of small projects that cumulatively make a critical impact. Furthermore, it is about local authorities obtaining the means to become the facilitators for action on their territories, building partnerships with their stakeholders and enabling initiatives of their citizens to change the societal fabric in a positive manner.

In the EU, the first building blocks are already there to enable cities to play their part in achieving the Paris Agreement. Instruments such as the EU City Facility have already started to make a difference. But only if these instruments are scaled up massively, so that any European city can benefit from them in a sustained and transformative manner, can the role of local authorities really be leveraged to support the delivery of the Paris Agreement while we still have time. If not now, then when?    

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Publication date

December 16, 2020